Queen Elizabeth II was not only the head of state of the United Kingdom, but also the creator and driving force of the Commonwealth. King Charles III now faces the challenge of keeping the 54 members of this informal community of states together

What is the commonwealth?

In the 19th century, Great Britain ruled the largest colonial empire in human history, stretching from India to South Africa. At its height, the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe and ruled over 458 million people. After decolonization following the Second World War, Great Britain managed to continue to bind the former colonies to itself in the “Commonwealth of Nations”. The Commonwealth is a loose confederation of nations and has no constitution. When joining the Commonwealth, members merely declare “their allegiance to the British Crown.” They also pledge to uphold the principle of democratic governance and to respect human rights. Members meet twice a year to organize programs that are in the interest of all. In only 15 of the 54 Commonwealth members is the king or queen also formally head of state, but, as in Britain, she has no influence on government policy.  An important common event is Commonwealth Games, where every four years the athletes from all Commonwealth countries complete

Africa commonwealth members

Twenty-one African countries are currently members of the Commonwealth of Nations – but the British monarch is not head of state there anywhere. 16 countries are republics, and two, Lesotho and Swaziland, are monarchies. Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009. A unifying element is the English language, which was the official language in all colonies and thus became the world language. Except in Mozambique, English is still one of the official languages. The Commonwealth offers its members some advantages in trading with each other and confers a certain prestige.

Queen Elizabeth’s merits

Through her personality, shaped by Christian values, her understanding of office as a service to the community, and her cordiality, the late queen succeeded in winning the hearts of many people during her numerous travels throughout the world. The 25-year-old princess was at a hotel in a nature park in Kenya when she received the news of the death of her father King George VI. As queen, she visited 20 African countries. She had a particularly warm relationship with the first South African president after the apartheid regime, Nelson Mandela, with whom she keeps regular contact by phone. A photo from 1961 shows her dancing with the first president of Ghana. She oversaw the independence of 14 former British colonies and managed to continue to maintain good relations with the ex-colonies through the creation of the Commonwealth. Many African presidents expressed their admiration for the Queen’s selfless service to their country and to the Commonwealth in condolence messages.

Signs of disintegration

British immigrants to the Americas formed the first colony but declared independence in 1776 because they no longer wanted to pay taxes to the king. Tendencies to become independent from the British Empire appeared again in the 19th century when Canada was granted self-government. This was followed by other states such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India, which were granted the status of self-governing “dominions”. In 1926, all Dominions became equal to the United Kingdom and could pass their own laws.

With the death of Queen Elizabeth, voices are raised in Commonwealth countries such as Australia and some Caribbean states calling for withdrawal from the Commonwealth. The colonial past and the atrocities committed by British occupying forces, such as in Kenya, where one and a half million Kenyans were held in camps during the War of Independence and several thousand were tortured to death, remain a historic burden. The royal house is accused by some of being partly responsible for this. Queen Elizabeth succeeded in holding the Commonwealth together despite this painful colonial past. Whether King Charles III will also succeed to keep the unity of the Commonwealth in the long run remains to be seen.

It is admirable how the Queen has led the Commonwealth over the past seven decades. She steered the institution’s evolution into a forum for effective multilateral engagement whose potential to drive enormous socio-economic progress is undeniable…
William Ruto, President of Kenya on the death of queen Elisabeth